Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Day 8

Reuel Marc Gerecht came back with A Cold-War Lesson: Be Ready and Willing to Go to the Brink With Iran.
I will just underscore one fact of the Cold War that must be transferable to any scenario where we imagine the Americans and the Israelis countering the supreme leader and his terrorism-loving Guards, who will de facto control Iran's nuclear weaponry. The United States and/or Israel must be prepared to go to the brink -- to conventionally and covertly counter the Islamic Republic's aggression, and to credibly threaten nuclear war -- in order to maintain the peace. The Cold War was hot and very bloody.

my comments:

I have to agree with the commenters above -- this truly sounds like frothing madness, not serious policy.

Much of the argument for a strike is based on "the Iranian leaders are crazy!" -- but really, Gerecht sounds crazy, too.

Again, I really wonder what is going on inside the American security/policy culture. Is this kind of thinking not recognized as insane? Or did The Atlantic deliberately pick wackos to be the "strike Iran" proponents in this debate, to make their side look bad?

In other words: why is Gerecht considered a Very Serious Person? Who in the security/policy culture is agreeing with him?

SpiffmanSpace wrote:
His point is that if Iran is NOT prevented from achieving nuclear weapons capability, THEN inescapably a nuclear standoff will develop in the Middle East. And that along with that nuclear standoff will be all the real risks of nuclear war that were associated with the Cold War. (And for a variety of reasons I have spelled out elsewhere, a Middle East nuclear balance will be far less stable than that during Cold War.)

He is not advocating nuclear war. Rather, he is describing the situation we wish to avoid.

Now, do I think he could have made this point more clearly ? Yes, I do.

OK, I can see how I misread him -- he's saying, *if* Iran has the Bomb *then* the US and/or Israel would have to practice nuclear brinkmanship. The subjunctive, Reuel! Learn to use it!

However, Gerecht doesn't really explain to me why, if Iran's nukes would force Israel and the US to make difficult decisions and play a dangerous game, Israel's nukes have no effect on Iran's present-day decision-making. Is it because, in Gerecht's opinion, the Iranian leadership knows that Israel would never make an unprovoked nuclear attack, and the Iranians would feel no such scruples? Even though they'd be destroyed in retaliation?

I'm missing a step in his argument.

Now that Spiffman has clarified Mr. Gerecht's rhetoric, I can address some of the other points in his post.

Since Mr. Gerecht himself has brought in the little matter of "wars liberals are reluctant to start", I will point out that he was one of the hawks promoting the Iraq war. When he says we wimps
always try to put off military confrontations even when their leaders know that diplomacy has a near-zero chance of solving the dangers before them. They inevitably preempt themselves with the worst-case scenarios associated with military action, while reassuring themselves with the solace that comes with preserving the status quo.
-- he is overlooking that the actual results of the Iraq War have been much too close to a worst-case scenario. To refresh your memory:

- at least 100,000 dead, uncounted numbers wounded or crippled physically and pschologically
- millions of refugees
- war ongoing
- money wasted, priceless heritage looted or ruined
- terrorists encouraged
- anti-Muslim bigotry surging in the US

All the evidence indicates that Mr. Gerecht is dangerously bad at weighing either the downsides of war or the benefits of peace.

Furthermore, when he talks about Revolutionary Guards as "the wickedest of the wicked" and "terrorism-loving," bent on campaigns of rape, torture and murder, I guess he doesn't realize that someone who helped Blackwater as much as he did (at least indirectly) is in no position to accuse other people of supporting wickedness, rape, torture, and murder.

Marc Lynch replied with The Burden of Proof for Declaring a Failure of Diplomacy.
Gerecht's argument ultimately comes down to a premature dismissal of other options and to the hope that if the U.S. or Israel hits Iran hard, the situation might look a little better when the dust settles. If Iraq has taught us anything at all, though, it's that the situation could just as easily look a lot worse. The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq is the clearest case available of a liberal democracy violating Gerecht's axiom about the preference to defer going to war -- and the invasion led to disaster.

I commented:

But the costs and risks of military action are sufficiently high that the burden of proof for declaring diplomacy a failure must be accordingly demanding
I must note that in Mr. Gerecht's experience the risks of military action are *not* particularly high. Though he promoted the Iraq War, he seems to felt no consequences from its failure: he is still considered a serious and thoughtful person, worthy of taking part in this discussion. He did not predict, acknowledge, or learn from the costs of that war; why should we pay attention to his predictions about the costs of another one?

I also do not think I agree with your mutual assessment of
liberal democracies' tendency to avoid tough decisions and push decisions to go to war down the road.
I do not see the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War as ones the US was particularly reluctant to enter. On the contrary, in my experience the tough decision that our system tends to avoid is the one that *ends* a war, that admits failure. In a democracy, the sunk costs of war are so monstrous that once we start we *cannot* seem to finish, because admitting that it was a bad idea is intolerable to leaders and populace alike.

Not to mention that IMHO "pushing decisions to go to war down the road" is a *good* thing, because it buys years of peace that are worth living in. To Gerecht, peace seems always to be the twin of appeasement, a time-out at best between the wars where the real work of history takes place. To most human beings, though, peace is an active good: we little people may not get to make history, but at least we get to *live*.

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Iran and Israel at the Atlantic, Days 6-7

Marc Lynch wrote Striking Iran Is Unwarranted, and It Would Mean Disaster
the whole discussion of an Israeli or American strike against Iran seems to take place in an historical void, as if we have not just lived through the brutal, griding experience of a war chosen and sold on shaky grounds. I would hope that the lessons of Iraq will not be so easily forgotten. When we are presented with claims of a ticking clock approaching midnight, we should recall Colin Powell at the UN and be very suspicious about the alleged urgency and absence of options.

My comments:

I assume that the link to Abrams -- and the fact that he and Dr. Lynch are on the same panel, as though they are equally worth paying attention to -- is due to The Atlantic, not to Dr. Lynch.

Nonetheless, it's worth asking, rather pointedly, why the editors at The Atlantic thought it was worthwhile giving Abrams some of their very valuable space -- especially since he is on the panel with Reuel Mark Gerecht, Patrick Clawson, and Gary Milhollin, all of whom promoted the Iraq War in terms which may now be objectively described as "wrong." Of course, so did Jeffrey Goldberg, so this may be an exercise in "Shape of Earth? Opinions Vary" to soothe Goldberg's feelings.

[arvay wrote:]
It's really worthwhile reading the Israeli press, gives you insight into a nation that is in many ways deeply disturbed. There are still some rational people like Barak, but increasingly -- as many moderates leave for safer places -- the discussion is being taken over by nut jobs.

Frankly, we in the US are also seeing the general political discussion being taken over by nutjobs, and we can hardly blame it on moderates leaving for safer places.

Dr. Lynch's post is IMHO the most substantive contribution we've seen from the panel so far: he presents his insights into history and policy in a way that conveys that he has actual evidence to back him up. His is the first post in this series that strikes me as substantially better than the best of the comments here -- he's either more of an expert, or he's better at conveying his expertise.

I honestly don't understand why the rest of the posts are so "thin" by comparison -- does this reflect a bias or blind spot on the part of The Atlantic, or is The Atlantic honestly reflecting an often glib, slapdash, and morally vacuous policymaking community?

Monday Roundup: Does an Air Strike on Iran Mean War?

[replying to a commenter]
I think you are absolutely right about this:
By Israel bluffing, it sure makes the hardliners in Israeli’s government strong. By Iran bluffing, it sure makes Sepah Pasdaran and Mollas strong in the country and in the region.

This is what I call the "Clausewitz-O'Neill Principle":
Wars are started for domestic or local political reasons, to impress friends and enemies within a country, more than to send signals to people in other countries.

Some rhetorical advice: from your sentence structure, I suspect you may not be a native speaker of English. Your paragraphs are too long for easy reading in this format; make them shorter, double-space between them to make them easier to grasp. Your "LISTEN TO ME!" at the end comes across as yelling, online, and rather crazy yelling, at that. Yes, these are desperately serious issues, but it's all the more important for your seriousness to come across calmly, or people won't bother to figure out what you're saying.

Friday Round-Up: If Force Is the Answer, What Is the Question?.

I love the title you chose for this post. What, indeed?

[skamble asked:]
Given Iran's commitment to complete liberation of Palestine, how can we avoid getting nuked?
(1) A nuclear strike on Israel would kill enormous numbers of Palestinians, directly and indirectly. They would be liberated to death.

(2) That's why you have your own nukes already. Anyone in the Mideast who makes a nuclear attack on Israel can expect to see mushroom clouds over their own cities. That's why we've been saying that nuclear weapons are terrible for attack, but great for defense. Israel's nuclear shield is one of the tightest in the world.

Why don't your weapons already give Israel a sense of nuclear security? That's what they're for.

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to tell fanfiction from literary fiction: you can't

Eric Rauchway of Edge of the American West wrote Banana Republican, a book about Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband from The Great Gatsby. Henry at Crooked Timber posted Mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education, a review of a bad (in both senses) review of the book. Hijinks ensued, including mine:

Maybe there’s a point at which this extrapolation from previous novels jumps the shark? Or on the other hand, maybe it’s become a genre in its own right so each one should just be taken on its merits?
(And what should be the name for that genre? Is there already one out there?)
We call it "fan fiction". There's rather a lot of it, and a good deal of scholarship, too.

As for the particular trope of making a secondary character from an existing work into your primary character, I'm not sure it has a separate name -- partly because it's so extremely common. I'm pretty sure I've seen the suggestion that such alternative-POV [point of view] stories are one reason current fanfiction is much more commonly written by women and girls than by men and boys. Women are used to not being the central character in the story, to knowing that we'd be off to the side, not really central, not the hero. This is much more the case with movies and TV than with books, and fanfic for filmed sources is enormously more common than fanfic based on purely text sources -- e.g. fanfic based on The Lord of the Rings was rare before the Peter Jackson movies started coming out.

ajay @16:
Really? I find that surprising given that a) fanfic is so closely associated with the SFF fan community and b) Lord of the Rings is reasonably well liked in this community. I wonder why that should be.
I'm sure it's true, because I helped someone track down stories before the Fellowship movie came out and we could only find a few hundred. Later that summer, LOTR stories were being posted at at the rate of a hundred *per hour*.

IMO, fanfiction for unfilmed books is rare because books (and stories) have a strong inner voice. In the case of LOTR, that voice -- that style -- is very distinctive and difficult to mimic, so people have rarely tried. Film -- movies and TV -- has no inner voice: all we see is the outside, we make up our sense that the characters have thoughts and feelings in a kind of enthymeme.

Also, film is very pretty. In the case of Orlando Bloom, *extremely* pretty.

alex @19:
“if it’s published, it isn’t fanfic”
Are you a fanfic writer or reader? If you aren't, your definition is somewhere between idiosyncratic and worthless. Not to mention your definition of "published".

Zamfir @23:
I’d say the Odyssee is itself Iliad-fanfic, probably even made up by a community of Iliad-readers.
Not readers, remember, listeners -- the Iliad and Odyssey come out of an oral tradition.

More generally, though, many fanfic writers/readers recognize that what we do is very like pre-copyright storytelling: sitting around the fire, each telling part of one story or different (or contradictory, mine-is-better-than-yours) versions of the same story or set of characters.

alex @22:
Otherwise we’re back where we started, and Ulysses is Homer fanfic.
To me, it is obvious that it *is* Homer fanfic -- not least because it was initially banned, even though not for the usual reasons fanfic is scorned, banned, or looked down upon. "You got sex in my Homer!" is not an argument that can be made with a straight face, though it's amazing how many people will assure you that Achilles/Patroklus is a horrible perversion of the text, and you have a depraved mind to even think of such a thing.

Yet the first recorded slash discussion is in Plato's Symposium, where Socrates and the fanboys are hangin' out, drinkin', and discussin' "Achilles/Patroklus: who tops?"

y81 @33:
it seems more useful to confine the word to unpublished work, generally of a literary quality too low to result in publication, written by aficionados of the underlying work. To expand the word to include every work that includes characters from another work is to make it less useful, unless you are the kind of person who genuinely cannot detect any difference in kind between the Odyssey and some online Hermione/Malfoy slash
Your statement is riddled with problems, which I'll outline not to beat up on you, but because other people probably share them:

- "more useful", "less useful" -- to whom?

- "unpublished work" -- what counts as published, in your mind? Back in the days when fans traded stories in mimeographed zines, perhaps you could say "unpublished" meant "not widely available." These days, a story posted on the Internet for free is likely to be *more* widely-available than one published in a book or magazine. Or does it only count as "published" if you get money for it?

- "generally of a literary quality too low to result in publication" -- otherwise known as *writing*. Most writing is of too low a literary quality to be published in the New Yorker, and even "published" writing generally conforms to Sturgeon's Law.

Conversely, as cofax points out @47, the best fanfiction is fully as good as the best "published" fiction. Here's an example: Apple Blossoms and Laurel Leaves is a brief Midsummer Night's Dream fanfic about Hippolyta. As you can see, its style is just as literary as any story in the "literary fiction" genre, it's based on a work emphatically in the public domain, and it's widely-distributed.

- "the kind of person who genuinely cannot detect any difference in kind" -- I submit that there *is* no difference in kind -- that is, as texts -- between "Apple Blossoms and Laurel Leaves" and the New Yorker's literary fiction. They *are* the same sorts of things.

What makes them different is the communities in which they are written and read. As you may have deduced from its header, "Apple Blossoms" was written as part of an annual multifandom gift exchange of stories in fandoms (or for sources) where there aren't many stories. Several thousand fanfic writers submit lists of "what I'd like to read" and "what I'm willing to write", Computer Magic! occurs, and everyone ends up writing and receiving at least one story. And then we *all* get to read them.

IMO the lack of distance between writer and reader, the fact that no money is exchanged, the way tropes are passed from hand to hand, the tolerance for repetition, and the whole tight social context makes fanfiction *more* like the way The Odyssey was created than the way your "published" fiction has been created in the copyright era.

- "online Hermione/Malfoy slash" -- Hermione/Malfoy would not be "slash" unless one of them has a sex change. "Slash" is used for same-sex pairings, especially male/male; the virgule in "Hermione/Malfoy" is not, technically speaking, a slash slash.

I'm quite startled by the fact that several of you think it obvious that the pre-movie LOTR fanfic "niche" was filled by role-playing games. To me, it seems obvious that RPGs and fiction are two very distinct art forms, as separate as painting and drama, and it would never occur to me to swap one for the other. How does that work, in your minds?

Salient @52:
Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to assume that, just because Author X appropriates Character Y or Universe Z, Author X is a fan of Character Y or Universe Z?

Fan fiction is referential fiction written by people who self-identify as ‘fans’ of the source.
I'm not sure what distintion you're trying to make. Was Virgil a "fan" of the Iliad? I'm not sure it's reasonable to talk about being a "fan" of something that is non-optional in one's own culture.

For James Joyce, it seems to me clearer that yes, he was a "fan" of The Odyssey: he thought about it a lot, he imagined the characters fully, he admired it and there were parts he didn't care for.

roac @63:
Speaking as another birder, fanfic writers and readers are *much* more widely derided than birders. Birders are at worst silly; fanfic writers are frequently accused of being perverts who drag respectable stories through the muck (by which they mean, writing the sexy bits), and who threaten the livelihoods and emotional stability of innocent writers, actors, directors, etc.
And lots of people write for a hobby, nothing strange about that at all—it’s the organized-social-circle aspect of it that I don’t get.
Your attitude is unusual. What I've found is that most people have a lot of trouble getting their minds around *writing* for *fun*. Writing is homework!

Oddly, even many people who love reading fiction have trouble understanding why anyone would write it for fun, as a hobby -- yet no-one has trouble believing that a basketball fan might also like to play hobby-level basketball.

Martin Wisse @64:
think Ulysses is a bit problematic as an example of respectable fan fiction, as it doesn’t take the characters of the original into a new plot, but rather recreates the form of the plot in an entirely new setting; certainly not the most common form of fan fiction.
Not "certainly" by any means. Such stories are called "Alternate Universes" or AUs, and they are *extremely* common. Ulysses would be a modern-day AU insofar as the characters are felt to be the "same characters" as they are in the Odyssey.

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, for instance, is perfectly respectable fanfic, a modern-day AU of King Lear.

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Joint Special Operations Command sued

Marc Ambinder reported that ACLU Challenges the Joint Special Operations Command.
JSOC kills people, mostly in war zones. Since 9/11, JSOC's assets, called "special missions units," have been unleashed into the world, and, on the basis of a series of still-secret executive orders, given the authority to pursue members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network wherever they go, and kill or capture them as determined by a specific set of criteria.
the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged JSOC's right to engage in targeted killings outside the battlefield. They're basing their challenge on the public acknowledgment of JSOC's existence by two presidents, on the acknowledgment by a presidential adviser that lists of human targets, some including U.S. citizens, exist, and on an acknowledgment by the director of national intelligence that Yemen is a place where these targets could be "gone after."

[commenter VrDrew:]
On the one hand, I have a problem (morally as well as Constitutionally) with an Executive, answerable to no-one, killing anyone (American citizen or otherwise) anywhere in the world outside of a declared battlezone. On the other, I can also see the threat posed by terrorist organizers operating in essentially lawless states such as Yemen, the FATA areas of Pakistan, and Somalia.
To be honest, I don't see this "other hand" at all.

Terrorist or not, lawless state or not, what *possible* threat makes it even vaguely appropriate for the US government to secretly sentence US citizens to be assassinated? This isn't just a little bit outside the Constitution, this makes the whole idea of a Constitution a mockery.

It seems to me that you're saying, "on the one hand, it's evil *and* illegal. On the other hand, we're cowards."

The most terrifying image George Orwell could think of was "a boot stamping on a human face - forever." But even he didn't imagine that the person being stomped would be holding the boot in place and licking it.

[commenter airish:]
Tokyo Rose was a US citizen. What's your point? If you are actively supporting an armed adversary of the US during a time of war, you can't hide behind your (joint) US citizenship that was acquired as an accident of birth
To insist on being legally accused before you're killed by your government is not "hiding behind" US citizenship. *That's* the point.

You may want to pick a different analogy to make *your* point. Tokyo Rose (a) was accused in a court of law, (b) had a US trial, (c) was convicted based on perjured testimony, (d) went to prison, and (e) later got a Presidential pardon. Apparently you believe that the whole bit with the law and the trial and the prison should have just been skipped over, and she should just have been quietly assassinated by US agents. Your approach would also skip over the bit about the perjury and the pardon, too, but I'm guessing that's a feature as far as you're concerned, not a bug.

whether our friend al Awlaki gains any special consideration by virtue of his dual US citizenship over, say, Osama bin Laden
Dude, he's covered by *US law*. The US government's treatment of US citizens is *not* a matter of international law or treaty.

In the case of Osama bin Laden, we've had a public price on his head for quite a while. He is not in any way a covert enemy of the US, nor vise versa. A targeted assassination policy may be a bad idea across the board, but it's IMHO *certainly* a bad idea if the list of targets needs to be counted on a second hand.

Now obviously you feel that al Awlaki isn't a "real" US citizen, so the US Constitution and US law shouldn't necessarily apply to him. But that is clearly, obviously, a matter for Johnny Roberts and the Supremes -- you shouldn't be assuming it as a given.

More generally, surely you can see that it is *extremely* dangerous for the US government (or any authority) to have the ability to kill Americans whenever and wherever it feels like, without any public knowledge or review. This is what tyranny looks like; this is what tyranny *is*.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Links and online reading

Harry at Crooked Timber posted about Nicholas Carr's latest luddite rant, against links. I commented:

I don't have time for the full critique here, but Carr is 100% wrong, Rosenberg mostly wrong.

How can I tell? Because neither of them cites (or links to) Jakob Nielsen, the Guru of Web Usability studies, including how people actually read online. Nielsen's most important discovery for this discussion: outbound hypertext links increase your credibility:
Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.
Writers -- like Carr -- who don't link are making their arguments from authority: "trust me because I'm me!" The Web is *ideal* for scholarship because it makes it extremely easy for readers to check that writers have in fact done their homework, that they're not just outgassing.

Emma in Sydney's project is a superb example of how good linking can be done. The only thing comparable I've seen on any high-profile site is Frank Rich's column at the NY Times, which recently started using popup-explicated links.

John @12:
if we (writers and readers collectively) were only allowed One Book, that book would be written and read very carefully
-- and as nick s points out @18, that reading and writing would *become a hyptertext*, so Carr would *still* be unhappy*. No, he wants the Authority of the Author to be an absolute monarchy: only one Book, read only one way, and no passing notes, neither.

Harry @23:
I just ignore it until I have i) figured out whether what I am reading is worth reading to the end and if so then ii) have actually read to the end. Isn’t that what everyone does?
Assuming you are not being sarcastic, the answer is: No.

In the first place, as Nielsen shows, the nature of those links is a major factor in most readers’ decisions about whether the text is worth reading to the end. The limiting factor in online life is human attention: it is the most precious, unexpandable resource. Thus, the decision “is this worth reading to the end?” is a much more crucial one for an online reader than for a hard-copy reader, and she’s going to be much more cynical and distractable (= motivated by her own agenda, not the author’s) than Carr would like.

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